Grace Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2015, Ordinary 16B
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Compassion For the Crowds
While it has now been more than four years since I last taught a music history class, I have been fortunate, through the modern miracles of electronic communication and social media, to be able to keep up with many of my friends and colleagues from that part of my life. One of those friends, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, recently shared on Facebook a number of pictures and posts from one of his scholarly trips through Africa, including in the nation of Rwanda.
I’m going to guess that most Americans know Rwanda, if at all, as the place where one of the more horrific modern episodes of genocide occurred just over twenty years ago, in which members of the larger Hutu population tried to wipe out the smaller, but more politically powerful, Tutsi. While in Rwanda Mark visited one of the memorials erected in the wake of and recovery from that genocide. Part of the display at that memorial attempted to give some kind of background or context to how such an event could happen. One part of the story sought to clarify one part of the answer in the country’s colonial past.
The colonial powers in Rwanda, first Germany and then Belgium, were confronted with these two main populations, Tutsi and Hutu; the Tutsi were evidently the rulers and more militarily powerful, while the Hutu were reported to be more numerous and more prominent in the country’s agriculture. The problem was identifying exactly who was Tutsi and who was Hutu; if there were racial or ethnic differences at one point in history, they were far less prominent by the time the colonialists were in charge. In order to exercise control, those colonial powers, according to this memorial, devised their own categories.
One example: any family that owned x amount of property (say, ten cows) was designated a Tutsi; any family with less was a Hutu – this despite the centuries of cohabitation and mixed marriage that had greatly reduced any previous racial differences. The colonial powers then proceeded to rule through the Tutsi and discriminate against the Hutu. This division (along with a lot of other factors) animated new conflict between the peoples, leading to decades of intermittent warfare culminating in the 1994 genocide.
In short, the Germans and then Belgians saw crowds and thought first of how to control them, how to dominate them, how to play those two groups against one another for their own benefit. Would that we could say such behavior was rare, but sadly history and honesty do not allow us that luxury. When we have to acknowledge that we’ve been party to such sowing of division in our own time, the Christian church should blanch with shame, particularly when we see in today’s gospel how Jesus saw crowds so completely differently.
The passage looks like a throwaway at first, or merely a connecting tissue from last week’s story of Herod and John to next week’s miraculous feeding of five thousand. When we look closer, however, we see that buried in this short excerpt, and its counterpart from the end of the chapter, is nothing less than the gospel in practice.
The disciples are returning from their first independent mission, and Jesus sees that – among other things – they are tired! They’ve been traveling and working hard, and Jesus’s first plan is to get them away for a time of rest and recuperation. This itself is a compassionate response to his disciples and friends, which is not so surprising; showing compassion on those we love is difficult enough, but it is something we can do, and something we expect to do.
What happens next, though, is where the whole idea of compassion is put to the challenge. As Jesus and the disciples are headed across the Sea of Galilee to seek that rest, somehow those on the shore are able to see or to know that Jesus is out there on that boat, and somehow are able to race the boat and arrive at their landing point before the boat does.
Think of it; you’re exhausted, you’ve “been run ragged” as we might say, and just as you think you’re getting away or getting a chance to rest, here come a whole lot of new demands on your time and energy. I’m going to guess, that if you’re anything like most people, compassion is not the first reaction that comes to your mind or soul.
Jesus, though, saw these crowds and had compassion on them. Understand what Mark means when we see this word; its Greek source is an utterly wonderful word, σπλαγχνιζομαι (splaghnizomai), a word with anatomical origins. Its most literal meaning would be something we might express as having your insides all churned up. This is not compassion as an abstract, distant reaction; it is compassion that is true to our English word’s Latin roots as well – “feeling with” or “suffering with” another, to the degree that their grief becomes your own, their loss your own.
We do know this feeling, to be sure; we experience it when one of our own loses a family member or a loved one, or when a major tragedy strikes in the world. It actually isn’t that hard to feel compassion for those we know and love, and for those whose suffering and loss are clearly seen and understood.
Compassion as a default reaction, though, is much more difficult. But this is where Jesus’s heart is as he sees these crowds. While we might look and see only a bunch of people or a new burden, Jesus sees, as verse 34 says, “sheep without a shepherd.”
Just as this passage overall is much more than a mere linking passage, this phrase ‘’sheep without a shepherd” is loaded with significance, and well beyond such familiar passages as Psalm 23 or Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” discourse in John 10. As far back as the book of Numbers we find Moses praying to the Lord to raise up a successor to him, in chapter 27, so that the Hebrew people would not be like “sheep without a shepherd.” The book of Ezekiel also addresses this idea, in a passage that both denounces the “false” shepherds as those who feed themselves instead of the sheep, and promises to rescue those sheep:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep/ You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…
The excerpt from Jeremiah we read earlier takes a very similar tone to Ezekiel, condemning the rulers who are not good shepherds to the flock and adds the promise “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…”.
In the novel The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene portrays the central character, a fading old whiskey priest, reflecting on the struggle he feels in caring for or feeling compassion for the people of his flock, compared with the deep, profound love he feels for his (illegitimate) daughter. He thinks:
One mustn’t have human affections – or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child. The passion to protect must extend itself over a world – but he felt it tethered and aching like a hobbling animal to the tree trunk.
I dare say many of us can relate to that struggle.
We see crowds around us. We read our newspapers or hear the news on the radio or television or online. What people do breaks our hearts, or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
Or maybe we’re more like the Peanuts character Linus, exclaiming, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” Someone close to us breaks our heart or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
But Jesus sees the lost-ness, the loneliness, the adrift-ness of the people, and compassion is his default reaction. And in his compassion…”he began to teach them many things.”
There are times when we need to feed people who are hungry. There are times when we need to shelter those who are without shelter, clothe those who have nothing to wear, seek out healing or relief for those who suffer physically. But many are the times when the thing we need to do most is speak the good news, to speak love and peace and healing and wholeness to those who do not know love or peace or healing or wholeness.
The events of verses 35-52 we will hear in the next two weeks. When those events are done, another boat ride commences, and this time when Jesus and the disciples land the crowds gather up quickly. Many healings happen in this place, as the people of the region gather up all those who are sick and bring them to Jesus. Even the marketplaces become venues of healing, as the sick are brought in on mats and laid before Jesus’s way, with people begging merely to touch the fringe of his cloak. The echoes of earlier stories in Mark are thick here; people being brought to Jesus on mats recalls the four who tear a whole in the roof to lower their sick friend to Jesus in Mark 2; touching the fringe of his cloak brings to mind the woman with bleeding from Mark 5. Here the more traditional scenes we have come to expect in this gospel play out – crowds swarming around Jesus seeking healing for their physical ills.
Taken in tandem, these two seemingly throwaway passages turn out to be nothing less than the kingdom of God come near, the very thing we have been watching for since the first chapter of this gospel. It is both in the feeding and healing and in the bringing the good news that we “get it right” when seeking to be followers of Christ. And as radical or utopian or farfetched as it might seem, when enough people who call themselves Christians actually get around to being followers of Christ, seeing with the compassion of Christ and loving with the love of Christ, this is what the world will look like.
Theologian Douglas John Hall suggests that this passage offers no less than the answer to the two most basic questions that come of our religious striving:
(1) How does your God view the world? – the basic theological question; and (2) How does your God ask you to view the world? – the basic ethical question.
In short, our God sees the world with compassion, and calls us to do the same.
For the compassionate Shepherd who rescues the sheep without a shepherd, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “Though I May Speak” (PH ’90 335); “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (PH ’90 387); “When Peace Like A River” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal 840); “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” (PH ’90 408)